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A Modest Proposal: Recruit Undergraduate Majors

By Carl Wieman

Over the last several years I have visited the physics departments at many of the major research universities in this country. A recurring theme at essentially all of them is the desire for more good graduate students, particularly those fluent in English. In response to this shortage the recruiting of prospective graduate students has correspondingly escalated so that most PhD granting physics departments are now investing large amounts of faculty time and money in the process. Including the fellowship money being offered to attract prospective students, numbers on the order of $100K per year are becoming common at major departments.

Most of these same institutions where there are such intensive efforts to recruit graduate students appear to make little or no effort to recruit undergraduates to major in physics. I would like to propose that all physics departments with PhD programs should commit to putting at least 10% of the faculty time and money that they are currently spending on graduate recruiting into such undergraduate recruiting. The shrinking number and the much more dramatically shrinking fraction of undergraduate students that are choosing to major in physics are of course the ultimate reason for the shortage of good graduate students. This trend towards fewer undergraduate majors is the most dramatic at PhD granting institutions (see AIP statistics). An extrapolation of the data from the past decade would predict that the last physics major will graduate in about the year 2010 and will almost certainly be from a four-year college. The reasons for this trend are complicated and there are many possible ways and rewards for attacking the problem. My 10% proposal is intended to be only one small specific step.

There is considerable reason to think that better recruiting would have an impact on this depressing trend in the number of undergraduate physics majors. The study of why students leave the sciences (which they do in droves from the physical sciences) suggests that a major factor for student's switching to other majors is the lack of advice and counseling (and implicitly just contact) from faculty. According to the departmental reviews carried out by the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics Education, departments that have been unusually successful at attracting physical science majors all indicate that a significant factor in these successes is personal contact and recruiting of students by faculty.

Of course increasing the number of majors at one's own institution is unlikely to have much direct beneficial impact on one's own graduate program because few physics majors stay at the same institution for graduate school. So, strictly from the perspective of enhancing the graduate program, the optimum strategy of each department is to spend all of its resources on recruiting grad students, while counting on everyone else dividing their recruiting resources between graduates and undergraduates. Unfortunately, all PhD granting departments seem to have come to this same conclusion, producing the dismal outcome we see at present. Clearly the best interests of all would be better served if every such research department agreed to put this modest fraction (10%) of their recruiting resources into increasing the number of undergraduate physics majors. In this case the words of Benjamin Franklin apply nicely, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Carl E. Wieman is a Distinguished Professor of Physics and Fellow of JILA at the University of Colorado. Although he is a member of the APS-AIP-AAPT National Task Force on Undergraduate physics education, this letter represents his personal opinion and not necessarily that of the Task Force.


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